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Donizetti, Emilia Di Liverpool:  Opera semiseria in two acts. Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra  of the European Opera Centre / Giovanni Pacor (conductor)  St, Georges Hall Liverpool  to initiate the City of Liverpool’s becoming the 2008 European City of Culture 31.12. 2007 (RJF)

Venice might eat its heart out at the thought of Liverpool receiving the title of European Capital of Culture 2008. Once the largest sea port in the world with fortunes made in the transport of goods, both material and human, Liverpool suffered massive decline and dereliction in the post Second World War decades of the twentieth century before a determined effort by the City Fathers began to turn things round. Fortunately, many of the fine buildings  escaped the philistine 1960s developers, albeit often in disrepair and neglect. First came the tasteful redevelopment and refurbishment of the great docks area  and later on some of the remaining fine architectural buildings nearer the city centre including, most recently, St. Georges Hall. Originally opened in 1855, the building has been the subject of a massive £23 million refurbishment and was formally opened by the Prince of Wales in early 2007. The small Concert Hall, seating around four hundred, and in which this staged production was performed in the round, is a magnificent circular high domed room. Complete with stage, on which the small orchestra were placed, it has been described as ‘perhaps the finest example of early Victorian interior design’. It is certainly quite magnificent and with first class acoustics.

In 1957, in preparation for the 750th anniversary of the award of the City Charter by King John, (the programme note states, inaccurately, 700th) there was a search for some appropriate artistic subject to illuminate the occasion. With musicology a neglected study then, the Liverpool Music Group and Fritz Spiegel delved into the musical archives on the lookout for a theatrical piece with some conceivable bearing on
Liverpool. They came up with Donizetti’s opera Emilia Di Liverpool and a performance of the work; the first for nearly a century was given on 12th June 1957.

was Donizetti’s twelfth staged opera by 1824, or, according to some commentators, his fifteenth or so. Historical accuracy was not the name of the game for the Liverpool Music Group, rather the discovery and the event. What was performed on that 1957 occasion was Donizetti’s 1828 revision, properly titled L’Ermitaggio di Liwerpool - take note of the spelling and the use of the letter W. The librettist, like Donizetti, had not much idea about   Liverpool's location, describing it as being in the mountains a few leagues north of London. In fact when it comes to the detail of the libretto, particularly of the 1828 version, the name  London is dominant over the use of Liverpool. No matter, at least they made the Emilia’s father a sea captain and owner of a vessel.

Both versions of the opera were for performances at
Naples’ small Teatro Nuovo, where the young Donizetti’s relationship with the city had got off to a good start with his opera La Zingara (The Gypsy Maiden) premiered there in May 1822. The requirements of this small populist theatre were very specific: works would involve musical items alternated with spoken dialogue, the latter ideally suited to the resident comic bass, who spoke it in Neapolitan dialect, and every opera for the Nuovo at this period had to contain such a role. Also essential in a heavily censored Naples was a happy ending; no matter the drama and near deaths and threats that had gone on previously. This is so in both versions of the Emilia opera, which, although having different cast names, reflects essentially the same story.

This performance was from a new edition by French musicologist Giles Rico, who has worked from all the available manuscripts in
Bergamo, Naples and Paris. Despite the failure of the 1824 version, Donizetti had high hopes for his creation and with a view to performances in Vienna wrote some new numbers. When these performances failed to come about Donizetti enlisted the support of Giuseppe Checcherini, whose wife had sung at the Naples premiere, as librettist, and revised the work. The revision was radical,  involving the removal of eight numbers and adding four new ones. Retitled L’Eremitaggio Di Liwerpool the work was unfortunately no more popular and lasted a mere six performances. Giles Rico has pruned the extensive spoken dialogue and selected the best music from both the 1824 and 1828 versions whilst keeping the coherence of the story. Never performed in Naples, but included in these performances, is the lovely duet for Candida and Emilia where the latter recounts her discovery that her father is alive and has returned. This is Donizetti at his near romantic best, as is much of the revised music, particularly compared with that in Act I where Rossinian influence is more apparent. Giles Rico’s version, with its restricted dialogue, made musical and dramatic sense to me. Whether it will become the basis for a meaningful fully staged resurrection of the work, at the Bergamo Festival or elsewhere, remains to be seen.

The presentation at Liverpool was under the auspices of the European Opera Centre which began life ten years ago following extensive consultation with the European Parliament and Commission. Its principal aim is to help young Europeans gain the experience needed to enable them to get employment in opera and the Centre relocated its operations to the Liverpool Hope University in 2002. The realisation of Centre's ideals was well illustrated by the diversity of origins in the cast on the opening night which had  soloists from Belgium, France and Romania as well as Italy. All the principal roles are at least double cast as the production proceeds from  one-week in Liverpool before going on to Gdansk, Bremen and Naples itself later in the year.

Opera in the round and in such an intimate setting has its particular challenges for the director and his team as well as for the performers. With a simple set comprising Emilia’s mother’s three tiered grave topped by a simple cross, and props limited to a knife and pair of pistols, much depended on the acting ability as well as the vocal strengths of the performers. Not all the participating singers at this performance were wholly inexperienced on the professional stage. Vincenzo Taormina in the vital buffa role of Romualdo has already appeared at La Scala in a routine revival (my words) of La Boheme as well as at Italian Festivals in small roles. Romualdo is the role originally written for the resident
Naples bass who spoke the extensive dialogue in the city dialect, really more an Italic language. A physically imposing man, Taormina’s strong baritone voice was appealing in tone and expressive, and although he had not quite the natural acting ability of the true buffa his was a convincing performance. As Federico, the licentious villain of the piece, and unusually a tenor, Bruno Camparetti had an appealing open and natural tone with a good range of expression. He acted well, but occasionally over-pushed his strong voice, unnecessarily given the size of the hall. Camparetti and Taormina were particularly impressive in the overtly Rossinian Act I duet. As Emilia’s father, Claudio, Cozmin Sime from Romania had a well-coloured and covered tone and sang with a expressively too. A little stiff in his acting,  he could have been better costumed, as his appearance here would not have kept Emilia in the dark for very long guessing who he was. In the small role of the Count, Etienne Hersperger who is currently completing studies in Marseille, sang adequately and did his best to put character into the part without really bringing over his supposed deafness which is another important buffa aspect of the plot, particularly the 1828 version.

All three female roles were well sung and acted. As Candida, I found Christina Khosrowi’s low mezzo very appealing in tone and range of colour both evident from the very opening of the opera and making me particularly glad that her Act II duet with Emilia was included in Giles Rico’s conflation. As Luigia, Romualdo’s newly intended who flirts with Federico, Katrine Lavorel sang with clearly enunciated  lyric soprano tone. She moved and acted well within the role’s limited opportunities. Limited opportunity is not what comes the way of the eponymous role sung by the Belgian lyric coloratura soprano Martine Reyners, and how! Hers was a considerable vocal and histrionic achievement. Slim, even slight, she sang strongly and acted with whole body conviction, her eyes and arms being particularly communicative. Her voice is strong and with a wide variety of colour across its considerable range allied to vocal flexibility of a high order. Miss Reyners produced  a consummate performance that gave focus to the whole of the action of the opera -  its many and varied emotional conflicts are  burdened on Emilia. She concluded the performance with hair-raising singing of the rondo finale from the 1828 version and reminding me, at least, of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena’s mad scene to come. I note from her programme biography that she is down to sing Rosalinde and Tosca. I hope these are in small theatres howeverm as her strong flexible voice could easily be overstretched in the second of those roles. She has the vocal and acting ability to make a fine Lucia. All the soloists, and also the chorus who sat in the gallery, were sympathetically and idiomatically supported by Giovanni Pacor’s conducting and the sensitive playing he drew from the orchestra. The staging by Ignacio Pian clarified the intricacies of the plot very well indeed, as did the presence of surtitle translation of the sung Italian.

The sparseness of the New Year’s Eve audience was perhaps compensated by its quality. Sir Jeremy Isaacs, Chairman of the Trustees of the European Opera Centre and sometime Intendant of Covent Garden, as well as Sir Peter Moores, great supporter of belcanto and rare opera, as well as Opera Rara, were among the audience together with impresarios from other centres. They, like me,  enjoyed a well-presented and performed rarely heard work which could gainfully be heard in larger centres now that the belcanto revival is well under way. This version would be ideal for the propagation of music that its composer thought to be of merit beyond its initial reception at
Naples’s Teatro Nuovo all those years ago. Liverpool is lucky to have its name in the title and on this occasion the city did the name and the opera the full justice it deserves.

Robert J Farr

Pictures © Andrew Gale

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